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Fong photography show highlights vintage diners

by on December 09, 2015 11:00 AM

BELLEFONTE — In Chuck Fong's Fraser Street studio, visitors get an eyeful of what the photographer calls “nuts and bolts.” Fong's professional work includes portraits, weddings, marching bands and events clients remember through handsome photographs.

"These present the client in their best light," Fong said.

He has some slightly different work that will feature in a show opening in January at the Bellefonte Art Museum. This show will present the "grit, grunge and grease" he discovered over the past five years or so while frequenting diners throughout the area and into New England. In the process, Fong has become a student of diners and their history.

"They derived from the old horse-drawn lunch carts," he said. "They're prefabricated buildings put on a site so that they can be moved."

He explained that most diners come from manufacturers in New Jersey or New England, and that you find very few of them west of the Mississippi due the difficulties of transporting them.

Fong visited one built in the 1930s in Bellows Falls, Vt. "That was the oldest one I went to," he said.

Throughout his adventure, Fong met and photographed all manner of colorful individuals, from waitresses to cooks to patrons.

"One server in a diner in Lemoyne (Pa.) had been there for 30 years," he said.

Fong's photos document the interiors, as well, and the quintessential diner exteriors, such as the Chelsea Royal Diner in Brattleboro, Vt. Built in 1939 by the Worcester Dining Car Company in Massachusetts, the Chelsea has retained its original structure, including an old ice box, the counter and stools.

"Each one had its own history," Fong recalled, including the Miss Worcester, which he photographed at 5 a.m., standing at the former entrance of the historic factory that built the diner back in the 1940s. It stands "literally under the railroad tracks," according to Fong.

Typical of Fong's work, these shots draw the viewer into the scene, evoking the sizzle of burgers hitting a hot stove top, the odors of grease and coffee, and moods unique to each piece. With this exhibit, he hopes to raise awareness of the plight of the mom-and-pop eateries unique to the eastern United States. As fast food chains expand, many of them may not survive.

"In the next 20 years," he said, "the typical diner will be a thing of the past.”


Ann is an Arts and Entertainment correspondent for the Gazette.
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